A Guide to International Law: How to Not Protect Women in Conflict

What springs to mind when you think of war? Fury starring a rugged Brad Pitt is a promising image, young Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan, World War I and II, the Revolutionary War… the list goes on and on. Men are typically portrayed as the heroic victims of war, dying in the firefight to save their country amidst valor, glory, and gore. However, both Hollywood and international law fail to recognize the silent victims of war: women.

In an article recently posted by Science Daily in relation to a study by BMJ, a peer-reviewed medical journal, it was noted that International Humanitarian Law (IHL) fails to adequately protect women in times of conflict. Yes, women are ‘expected’ to be protected, but an estimated 140,000 women die in conflict every year. This can be due to a number of factors, including rape and torture being utilized as weapons of war, as well as the blatant targeting of civilian zones, even though the UN Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict of 1974 clearly states that this cannot happen.

The disturbing part? A large majority of these women are pregnant.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 830 women die everyday in pregnancy-related incidents – the last thing they need to worry about is dying in conflict. There are more pressing issues to consider, such as the lack of sexual health services in war-stricken nations, poverty, and seemingly, the lack of protection provided by international law. Appropriate health services can be destroyed and even targeted during conflict, and the breakdown of infrastructure means that the focus on maternal healthcare is nonexistent. Furthermore, survivors of civilian attacks are subject to PTSD alongside physical repercussions, all whilst bearing the miracle –or burden- of childbirth. Children are already bad enough without needing to cope with raging flashbacks and mental trauma.

In reference to the UN Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict (1974), steps must be taken to ‘ensure the prohibition of measures such as…degrading treatment and violence, particularly against that part of the civilian population that consists of women…’ and that expectant mothers be treated particularly well. Furthermore, the basic tenets of IHL in terms of general protection follow the ideas of non-discrimination, humane treatment, protection against the effects of hostilities and special treatment for pregnant women, such as the provision of food and adequate healthcare.

But are they being treated well? Absolutely not.

The problem lies in the lack of accountability that international humanitarian law fails to establish. Article 119 of the 1949 Geneva Convention IV dictates that age, sex and state of health must be noted in order to punish the perpetrators appropriately, but does not recognize the near-impossible nature of forcing warring parties to admit to their crimes, and the equally-difficult concept of recording names, mental states and ages like a census for punishment. As if fighting for your country wasn’t stressful enough. Moreover, Article 76 of Additional Protocol 1 states that ‘Women shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected in particular against rape, forced prostitution and any other form of indecent assault.’ How do you define ‘special respect’, IHL? Donald Trump has a ‘special respect’ for his daughter’s body and Mexican food, but that doesn’t mean it’s a) appropriate or b) saving any lives.

Doctors emphasize the importance of the implementation of political settlements in order to reach the core of the conflict, as well as the education of warring parties in international humanitarian law. Imagine sitting down with a group of terrorists to discuss their wrongs and their so-called ‘underlying ignorance’, as it were; this is not particularly pragmatic in the world we live in. To the international community, it is entirely possible to reach a more comprehensive solution than encouraging military perpetrators to learn about why they shouldn’t kill people.

Solutions such as the creation of Hospital and Safety Zones under the Geneva Conventions and other neutralized zones are all well and good until someone blows them up. In conflicts such as Bangladesh’s war of independence and the civil war in Sri Lanka, these agreements came in the form of writing, and conformed to those cited in ratified IHL. However, the bombing of Kunduz Trauma Hospital in Afghanistan and the Mullivaikkal Hospital in Sri Lanka, both in recognized Safe Zones, indicate that soldiers are incapable of respecting written agreements.

The enforcement of said agreements between two parties in times of conflict is weak, as evidenced by Israel’s constant violations of ceasefires with Gaza in 2014, and various other instances in which nations displayed a blatant disregard for general human decency.

As such, it must be noted that yes, IHL provides comprehensive guidelines to protect women in times of war, particularly pregnant women, but we must recognize that their fates would be significantly improved if it was actually implemented. If nations could crack down on the ambiguous use of language in IHL, with phrases such as ‘suggested that’ and ‘should be’ leaving way too much legroom for military perpetrators to debate political diction, women could garner significantly more protection and support.

Here’s to hoping we focus on protecting women, rather than making the bad guys not kill people.

Désirée Tan is a second-year Marketing and Political Science/International Relations student at UWA. When she’s not smashing out hilarious yet informative international law blog posts, she is avoiding adult responsibilities and yelling at boys on the volleyball court.



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